Every three weeks this NBA season, I’m publishing power rankings with one thought, observation, or idea about each franchise. The order is a mix of recent results and projected performance. In other words, the top team is the one opponents would least want to face right now. Anyway, here we go:
1. Utah Jazz | Previous Ranking: 2 ↑
Appreciate Rudy Gobert.
The Jazz have a chance to do something no team has ever done before: attempt 40 percent of their field goal attempts from 3 and make 40 percent of those attempts. This season, 48.8 percent of Utah’s shots are 3s, which leads the NBA. After setting the record for 3-point makes in a half on Saturday night, they’re hitting 39.8 percent of their total attempts. Whether they make up the decimal points or not by the end of the season, Utah is an outlier even among the most 3-point-happy teams.
Bombs Away ...
|Team||3P%||% of 3PA|
|Team||3P%||% of 3PA|
The Jazz ranked first in 3-point percentage last season, but only eighth in frequency. They’re simply leaning harder into what they do best. One of the big reasons for their 3-point success is the player who doesn’t take any: Rudy Gobert.
Gobert (who’s scored 1.3 points per roll since 2017) is such a dominant finisher when he rolls down the lane that defenses must rotate to prevent passes to him, which opens up his teammates. If he does receive the ball, he’s also talented at kicking it out to shooters, which the Jazz have plenty of.
Of their nine regular rotation players, only Gobert and Derrick Favors don’t shoot 3s. Only Jordan Clarkson (35 percent) is shooting below 38 percent. Joe Ingles has so far hit exactly half of his 246 3-point attempts. These numbers are bonkers, and they’re hitting at such a high rate partially because Gobert helps them get open and delivers the ball with precision.
It’s disappointing that a legend like Shaquille O’Neal has gone on national TV and dissed Gobert for not being more of a scorer. So what? Gobert helps others score, and he stops others from doing so better than anyone. Unselfishness should be admired.
2. Brooklyn Nets | PR: 1 ↓
Nic Claxton is a switching machine.
The Nets defense switches 24.1 screens per game, which leads the NBA, according to Second Spectrum. When they switch, they allow only 0.94 points per chance, which ranks 10th. One of Brooklyn’s main reasons for success is Claxton, the second-year big man.
Claxton stays active with his feet and hands to mirror every move by the opponent, and the Nets already trust him to switch onto anybody. This season, Claxton has switched 8.5 screens per game, which is more often than any other player in the league. For reference, Bam Adebayo ranks second with seven switches per game and Robert Covington is 10th with 3.6. And he’s leading despite playing under 20 minutes per game. The difference is even more extreme when looking at his per-100-possessions stats. Claxton switches 23.5 screens per 100 possessions, and when he does, the Nets defense allows an elite 0.78 points per chance, one of the best marks in all of basketball. Claxton is an outlier, even in a league that’s obsessed with switching.
The Nets dominate with him on the floor, posting a 100.3 defensive rating since he returned in late February after shoulder surgery. But with him off the floor? Brooklyn has a poor 116.6 defensive rating. It’ll be interesting to see how Steve Nash configures his rotations during the playoffs. Right now, Claxton comes off the bench. The additions of Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge may impact his minutes in games against bigger teams, just as it did on Sunday when Brooklyn favored a more traditional scheme against the Bulls. But in most playoff series, the Nets will lean on switching, which is when Claxton’s value should be most apparent.
3. Milwaukee Bucks | PR: 4 ↑
Can P.J. Tucker complete the Bucks’ title picture?
The Bucks re-signed Jrue Holiday over the weekend to a massive four-year extension worth up to $160 million. Now Holiday, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Khris Middleton are locked up for the long term, and Milwaukee is built to contend for years to come. But championship teams need more than stars to win it all, and the Bucks have been aggressive in targeting players who can help their mission to win a title.
Tucker is one of those players. In his 44 minutes so far this season, we have seen flashes of what Milwaukee’s defense could look like with him. The Bucks switched 39 percent of screens, much higher than the 23 percent when he hasn’t been on the court, according to Second Spectrum.
Results have been mixed when the Bucks switch screens, but they’ve used the regular season to become more versatile. Defenders like Tucker, Holiday, and Giannis allow the Bucks to switch when they need to, but Tucker, at nearly age 36, is unfortunately out right now with a calf injury with no timeline for his return.
I’m reminded of the 2018-19 season, when the Bucks acquired Nikola Mirotic at the trade deadline to provide the floor spacing to take them over the top. But Mirotic ended up struggling, got injured, and bombed in the playoffs. Tucker’s story should play out much differently if he’s able to return and stay healthy. After landing Holiday in November, the Bucks chased Tucker in a trade, and for good reason. Now they need to wait a little longer to get him on the court. The sooner, the better.
4. Phoenix Suns | PR: 5 ↑
A make-or-break stretch awaits.
The Suns are one of the best teams in the NBA and they keep getting better. Chemistry between Devin Booker and Chris Paul constantly improves. Players are getting a better feel for whipping the ball around the floor, relocating, and cutting. Deandre Ayton still has ups and downs, but the highs—including games last month against Miami and Toronto—showed a player ready to make a playoff impact.
This next month will be their stiffest of the season, though. On Wednesday and Thursday, Phoenix faces the Jazz and Clippers. When I do these power rankings again in three weeks, the Suns will be finishing a five-game Northeast road trip against the Bucks, Sixers, Celtics, Nets, and Knicks. To close out April, they’ll face the Clippers and Jazz.
A gauntlet month will make or break their chances of catching Utah, which they currently trail for the 1-seed by 3.5 games. Grabbing the top spot doesn’t necessarily guarantee a better first-round opponent or an easier path to the Finals. But winning a lot of these games would provide even more evidence the Suns are ready to contend for a championship.
5. Denver Nuggets | PR: 6 ↑
The Nuggets completed their roster.
This play defines Aaron Gordon’s tenure so far with the Nuggets:
Nikola Jokic executed a gorgeous one-handed catch and finish, but Gordon made it all happen. As Jamal Murray got crowded with the ball in his hands, Gordon motioned to set a possible back screen for Will Barton while also positioning himself as an outlet. Barton drew his defender away, which opened Gordon as a receiver for Murray. Immediately upon receiving the pass, he had the awareness—with only five seconds left on the shot clock—to fling the ball up into a spot only Jokic could catch it. It’s an excellent play.
I’ve been waiting years for this. The Magic were never able to put Gordon in a position to maximize his best talents, but teams around the league realized it and that’s why there was so much interest in him. Gordon was the most important trade deadline acquisition: He gives Denver another playmaker on offense who can serve as connective glue between Murray and Jokic, while creating on broken plays like the prior pass to Jokic or by running an occasional pick-and-roll.
With Jokic and Murray running most of the offense, Gordon can also play off the ball as a spot-up shooter or hang in the dunker’s spot, and he can screen for them.
On defense, he’s going to defend the opponent’s best scorer at wing or forward. In his first three games with Denver, he did good work against Kawhi Leonard, Ben Simmons, and John Collins. With his size and strength, he’s a necessary piece for potential playoff matchups against the Clippers, Lakers, and Mavericks because of Leonard and Paul George, LeBron James, and Luka Doncic. Michael Porter Jr. is developing nicely for Denver on defense this season, but the Nuggets needed a stopper. Gordon could be the final piece of the puzzle.
6. Dallas Mavericks | PR: 7 ↑
The power of the stepback 3.
Luka Doncic has tried 3.95 stepback 3s per game and makes them at an excellent 38.8 percent. This number is up significantly from 34.6 percent over his first two seasons. It has become his most unstoppable shot.
Only James Harden attempts more stepback 3s than Luka this season. They are the only players to ever attempt more than three stepback 3s per game, and no one has taken them from deeper than Doncic. This season, Luka’s stepback 3s are from an average distance of 27.3 feet, which is the deepest in history, according to Second Spectrum.
Luka is stretching the limits of his jumper, which makes it even harder for defenders to stop him. If they play him up close when he’s 3 feet behind the arc, it can only open more driving lanes for him to dribble into the paint, where he’s also lethal as both a scorer and a playmaker. The Mavericks are fighting for the sixth seed to avoid the play-in tournament, rather than the West’s top spot like some predicted in preseason, but Luka has gotten better; that alone makes this season a win.
7. Miami Heat | PR: 9 ↑
Keep an eye on Duncan Robinson.
Here’s a fun stat:
Fastest to 450 3-pointers, NBA history:— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) April 4, 2021
3. Trae Young, 177 games.
2. Luka Doncic, 171 games.
1. DUNCAN ROBINSON, 138 games.
Next time you watch a Heat game, keep your eyes locked on to Robinson for a handful of plays (or all of them!) and you’ll see a game within a game. Defenders do everything they can to prevent his 3-point number from going up even higher. Just watch the way the Warriors defend him here:
Andrew Wiggins does a great job of getting around the screen then blocking his shot. After getting the ball back, Robinson hilariously uses two pump fakes to throw Draymond Green out of position before driving. It’s not often Robinson scores unassisted in the paint, but he’s scoring with more finesse inside against length than he has in the past. He’s becoming more than just a knockdown shooter, which will only make him harder to defend.
8. Philadelphia 76ers | PR: 3 ↓
Is there something wrong with Ben Simmons?
In 11 games since the All-Star break, Simmons is averaging 12.9 points on 45.5 percent shooting from the field. Within 8 feet of the rim, he’s shooting 48.1 percent, down from 63.1 percent over the prior 22 games. Sixers fans are fed up and confused. Simmons was playing with more aggression on offense than ever before. He attacked the rim with force. He seemed mad. Not anymore, though. He seems timid. He lacks power. Something is up.
Keep in mind that Simmons dealt with both a left knee injury and a back injury earlier this season, which sidelined him for some time. He struggled earlier in the season too. Those parts of the body are unfortunately a common cause for nagging pain in general. Is there something wrong? Could the extended break have hurt his conditioning? I haven’t heard a peep, but a physical issue would explain these struggles.
Otherwise, it’s hard to figure out. Simmons’s intensity comes and goes. It always has. But during Joel Embiid’s 10-game absence due to a knee injury, it would have been great to see the Sixers develop some chemistry with Simmons running the show. Philadelphia is scoring only 107.2 points per 100 chances in the half court when Ben Simmons is on the court without Embiid, according to Second Spectrum. That would rank 22nd in the league. The Sixers need to be better in those non-Embiid minutes to be the best team they can be in a playoff series. The East will not be easy.
9. Portland Trail Blazers | PR: 14 ↑
A weird stat about CJ McCollum.
I shared this stat two weeks ago in an episode of The Void and find it alarming that it still remains true: Only five players have ever averaged over 20 points while attempting under 11 percent of their shots at the rim. McCollum has a chance to become the sixth, according to Basketball-Reference. Dirk Nowitzki and Allan Houston did it twice. D’Angelo Russell, Glenn Robinson, and Stephen Curry all did it once.
McCollum admitted earlier in the season that he’s still regaining his explosiveness after suffering a back injury last year. At some point, it would be great to see him get to the basket more often so it can be a consistent, easier source of offense. But he’s also made a point to take more 3s instead of deep 2s, and that’s leading to the most efficient scoring season of his career. The Blazers are winning despite not being able to stop anybody. McCollum’s play is one of the reasons.
10. New York Knicks | PR: 11 ↑
Can Julius Randle get even better?
This past month, Julius Randle attempted a couple of dribble-jumpers from 3 that made me raise my eyebrows. One shot clanked off the front of the rim and the other was an air ball, but still. Check out his handles:
Considering how much Randle has improved from 3 this season, as my colleague J. Kyle Mann explained in a video published last week, I can’t help but wonder whether it’s possible he’s still in the infancy stage of being able to hit this shot.
Randle is already so much more comfortable pulling up over a screen from 3 and shooting off the catch. But the next step could be drilling side-step and stepback 3s with a hand in his face. At the least, Randle’s progress this season has shown nothing should be ruled out with his development.
11. Los Angeles Clippers | PR: 10 ↓
Are the Clippers screwed?
Paul George is still playing through bone edema in his right toe, which was initially diagnosed back in early February. It’s clearly limiting his performance; he gets no lift around the rim and looks hesitant when handling the ball. George was averaging 24.4 points on 60.2 percent true shooting prior to the injury; he’s averaging 19.7 points on 53.6 percent true shooting in the 18 games since. “There really is no pop on the right foot, because I can’t really bend my toe,” George recently told reporters. “If I can play and play with minimal pain, that is what I am going for. We gotta figure it out, though.”
I asked Brian Sutterer, a sports injury doctor who runs a YouTube channel with nearly half a million subscribers, what George’s options are here. An initial treatment is rest for up to seven weeks, he said, but ramping a player back up to full speed often results in setbacks with this type of injury.
“In an ideal setting, you rest until pain-free and repeat imaging to see if the edema is gone. Only then would you ramp up activity. It’s not a high-risk site of stress fractures, so you don’t have to be as aggressive with management as you would with others, like the navicular foot bone,” Sutterer said. “But the challenge for George is now that the season is closing out, it will be hard to give him the adequate rest to allow full healing. So it could continue to be this up-and-down thing that might not get adequate time to fully heal and stay healed.”
Gulp. The West is stacked, even more than it was in the bubble. Come playoff time, the Clippers can’t handle Pandemic P again. To win it all, they need the All-NBA candidate from earlier in the season. Can he still be that player?
12. Los Angeles Lakers | PR: 8 ↓
Kyle Kuzma has figured out how to defend.
Kuzma always had the look of a good defender, at 6-foot-10 with length and a strong frame. But he was never reliable. This season, everything has clicked and he’s locking down opponents. Look at him mirror De’Aaron Fox:
Fox had no room to breathe, which is a product of the work Kuzma has put in to improving his game and embracing his role. Maybe somewhere else he could average nearly 20 points, like he did in 2018-19, but the Lakers need him to put all his effort into defense, rebounding, and making the right play on offense. Kuzma has done all that to the fullest, which is one of the reasons the Lakers can be even better than last season if LeBron James and Anthony Davis return and stay healthy.
13. Boston Celtics | PR: 12 ↓
Did the Celtics find their center?
“Time Lord” is one of the NBA’s best organic nicknames. But on nights when Robert Williams III logs over five assists, he needs to be called “Dime Lord.” That’s been happening quite a lot recently: Williams has 23 assists and only three turnovers in five games since being named a starter on March 26.
Williams makes rapid decisions as a passer, whether he’s facilitating from the elbow or kicking the ball out to shooters from underneath the basket. The Celtics have been missing a big man who can do this ever since Al Horford left. Considering how stagnant their offense has run at times this season, Williams’s playmaking presence could serve as a spark, or at least provide more variety to the actions they run.
14. Atlanta Hawks | PR: 23 ↑
The Hawks are finding balance.
Bogdan Bogdanovic’s first season in Atlanta hasn’t gone as planned, with struggles and missed time due to the injury. However, he’s been trending up this past month and has gone boom since being inserted in the starting lineup after the trade deadline.
In the three games prior to Sunday’s win over Golden State, he averaged 25.3 points and six assists while perfectly complementing Trae Young. When Bogdanovic shares the floor with Young, he primarily plays off the ball. But when Young is on the bench, Bogdanovic runs a healthy dose of pick-and-rolls.
During that three-game stretch, Bogdanovic ran 34.9 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions without Young on the floor compared to only 15.1 when they’re in the game together, according to Second Spectrum. This differential is obviously by design. Without Young, Bogdanovic is able to lean more into his playmaking skills to help boost bench units. When they’re together, the hope is that Young will develop more off-ball scoring skills to provide even more variety to their already-potent offense.
15. Toronto Raptors | PR: 16 ↑
Toronto tanking in Tampa Bay?
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was recently asked about tanking. “I don’t like it. I don’t like talking about it, I don’t like thinking about it, I don’t like that it goes on,” Nurse responded. “We’re still playing to win. We’re still playing to make the playoffs and we’re still playing to get better.”
Toronto has a chance to finish with the worst record of any team with a positive point differential in league history, but the losses are mounting. The Raptors have won three of their last 18 games, dealt Norman Powell for Gary Trent Jr., and traded away Matt Thomas and Terence Davis for future picks. No center was added. Yes, Kyle Lowry is still on the roster. But this season’s team got worse on March 25, and keeping Lowry was more about maintaining a centerpiece for next season, when the Raptors hope to reload for another run. A higher draft pick could certainly help in that pursuit.
For now, the rest of this season is about development. It’s about Pascal Siakam moving past his plateau, OG Anunoby becoming even more skilled and confident offensively, and finding out what they have in Trent.
So far, Trent has performed similarly with Toronto as he did with Portland—hot one game, cold the next. But at only 22 years old, he might be nowhere near reaching his potential, and he’s already shown the ability to be a dynamic scorer. The Raptors have proved able to maximize development. A roster full of in-house talent is evidence. Trent could be the next success story.
16. Charlotte Hornets | PR: 17 ↑
Gordon Hayward is hurt again.
It was shaping up to be a feel-good season for the Hornets. LaMelo Ball came to Charlotte. Young guys like Malik Monk and Miles Bridges are excelling. And Gordon Hayward was playing a lot more like the Gordon Hayward of old. But now he’ll miss at least four weeks with a sprained right foot.
The injury is not to the same leg that suffered a major injury in 2017, but Hayward has endured many lower body injuries since returning to the court, and he’s been slow to play with the same aggression upon returning. It became a frustrating, seemingly never-ending cycle when he was with the Celtics.
Some executives around the league felt the Hornets took a major risk signing Hayward to a four-year, $120 million deal last offseason. Hayward has shined so far, but his eventual return will be his first big test with Charlotte. Hopefully, he’ll still be the best version of himself.
17. Memphis Grizzlies | PR: 18 ↑
De’Anthony Melton is here to stay.
Defense has never been a question for Melton. He’s gritty and plays bigger than his body (6-foot-2, 200 pounds). Shooting has long been his limitation, but he might be having a breakthrough.
Melton is shooting 45.3 percent from 3, and looks more comfortable than ever off the catch. At only 139 attempts on the season, we’re still working with a small sample compared to years’ worth of data from past seasons. But this is not the case of a player who lacks touch having a fluky run. Melton always shoots in the high 70s from the free throw line, and he has touch on floaters and layups around the rim. Shooting success just never translated to the perimeter. Now it is, and if he keeps it up, the Grizzlies will have once again found a player who makes a winning impact.
18. New Orleans Pelicans | PR: 19 ↑
A Point Zion update, and an emerging teammate.
A few weeks back, we published a video breakdown of Zion Williamson:
In the video is a Second Spectrum stat that highlights that the Pelicans were letting Zion run way more pick-and-roll since late January. It was a small sample at the time, but I’m happy to report Stan Van Gundy has continued to feed his star the ball.
Williamson has served as the ball handler for 9.3 pick-and-rolls per game since January 30, up from 1.6 prior. The Pelicans are scoring 1.07 points per chance when he is the pick-and-roll ball handler since then, which ranks in the 88th percentile of players logging at least 100 plays in that time frame.
New Orleans is dominant offensively with Zion on the floor—which hasn’t been the case lately, as Williamson has sat with a thumb injury—and that’s with too many ineffective shooters surrounding him. But one bright spot among the supporting cast is Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who’s thriving with an increased role and responsibility. Alexander-Walker is averaging 16.7 points on 40.7 percent from 3 in his past seven games. He plays a versatile role, either handling the ball and running pick-and-roll, or playing off his teammates by moving to get open for 3 or cutting to the rim. He’s a high-IQ player—exactly the type the Pelicans should have around Williamson.
19. Golden State Warriors | PR: 15 ↓
It’s time to embrace the pick-and-roll.
Last week, the Warriors ran 10 pick-and-rolls with Steph Curry as the ball handler and James Wiseman as the screener. It was the most Curry and Wiseman had tallied together in a game since late January. Steve Kerr was asked after the game whether he plans to use more pick-and-rolls, which is something he’s long resisted with Golden State’s past contenders.
“We want to continue to run plenty of pick-and-rolls,” Kerr said, noting Wiseman’s grasp of the intricacies of screening—timing, angles, and skills like that—as a reason. The next game, a 53-point loss to the Raptors, Curry didn’t play. And on Sunday against the Hawks, they ran seven, near their season average of 6.5, according to Second Spectrum. None of these totals come close to pick-and-rolls run per game by duos ranging from Trae Young and Clint Capela (19.2) to De’Aaron Fox and Richaun Holmes (15.7) to even Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl (9.1).
It’ll take more than one game to know whether Golden State will really run more pick-and-roll with Curry and Wiseman this season, but Warriors fans have been asking for it all year, for good reason. Since 2017-18, including this disappointing season, the Warriors score 1.07 points per pick-and-roll with Curry as the ball handler, which leads the league during this time frame. Here is the top five:
|Ball Handler||Points Per Chance||Picks Per 100 Possessions|
|Ball Handler||Points Per Chance||Picks Per 100 Possessions|
Even if Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Green are all off the court, Curry’s name would still rank first (1.05) when he’s running a pick-and-roll. That stat surprised me, but it speaks to his greatness. This is precisely why many Warriors fans have been frustrated: Curry is the NBA’s most efficient pick-and-roll scorer and a dynamic playmaker, yet Kerr rarely utilizes him in this action even when Klay is out, KD is gone, and the team drafted a rim-running rookie whose best skill is finishing.
Adaptability is the hallmark of sustained success in sports history—from the New England Patriots to the New Zealand national rugby union team to the NBA’s own Spurs. After the Warriors lost to the Raptors in the 2019 Finals, I wondered how they’d change in the years to come. Two years later, the system is analogous and the roster has only gotten worse. Kerr and his coaching staff aren’t entirely to blame—Bob Myers and the front office chose to stock the roster with a lot of players who are still in a developmental phase. Even if Curry went full Harden, teams would just blitz and trap his pick-and-rolls all day long to make someone else beat them. Unless Thompson returns to full powers and stays healthy, there’s no other scorer on this team who makes defenses sweat. This team is filled with players—including Wiseman—who struggle to make rapid decisions in the read-and-react system that worked for past veteran teams.
This speaks to the importance of maximizing the coming years by tweaking the system to fit the talents of the players, by finding new players, or both. Curry is 33. Thompson and Green are both 31. Do these three really have time to wait for Wiseman to figure out how to help on defense? Or for Kerr to make the pick-and-roll the first play up the court, and not the last option at the end of the clock? The passage of time in sports often necessitates change. This season has shown the Warriors are in need of a makeover.
20. Indiana Pacers | PR: 21 ↑
Appreciating the little moments.
I’ve always had a thing for smaller guards who come off the bench to provide a spark. Guys like Patty Mills, J.J. Barea, or Eddie House—those dudes who are around 6-foot-1 or shorter. Some of them lean toward scoring, others are more playmakers. T.J. McConnell falls somewhere in between. He can be relied on by the Pacers to make smart decisions as a passer and play tough defense.
Occasionally, he’ll go off as a scorer. On Saturday, McConnell scored 18 points to help the Pacers break a three-game losing streak. After hitting a bucket to ice the game in overtime, he was talking trash.
TJ Mcconnell after the dagger:— AKRiley (@AKRileyy5) April 4, 2021
“That’s what the fu** i do”
Need this man to retire a Pacer pic.twitter.com/Y3lgTjU5mb
Moments like this make games worth watching for fans, even if the season isn’t going as planned. It’s pure fun. Every organization’s goal should be to build a team that can win a championship. But for fans, you have to enjoy every moment along the way. Especially the big ones by small players.
21. Chicago Bulls | PR: 20 ↓
Is there any salvaging Lauri Markkanen?
Congratulations to the Bulls for getting their first win with Nikola Vucevic on Sunday against the Nets (without James Harden and Kevin Durant). During the win, they once again experimented using Markkanen at small forward. It hasn’t exactly gone well. Markkanen has a size advantage on offense, but only theoretically since he plays like he’s one foot shorter than he is by hovering around the perimeter. Defensively, he’s struggling to contain his assignments.
Bulls head coach Billy Donovan is throwing darts trying to figure out how to effectively fit Markkanen into his rotation. There’s a chance Markkanen can be a productive player, so the franchise is doing everything possible to see whether there’s a way to make things work with him.
But in his career, he’s been a slightly below-average shooter at 36 percent from 3 and he’s not much of a playmaker. He doesn’t rebound much for his size. And he doesn’t get many stops defensively. Markkanen isn’t a fit in Chicago. The question now is whether he’ll fit anywhere at all.
22. Sacramento Kings | PR: 26 ↑
Tyrese Haliburton is exceeding expectations.
There was never a question about Haliburton’s ability to be a quality pro. NBA players with his combination of skill, feel, and intellect never fail. But there were concerns about his unorthodox shooting form and how it would impact his ability to take jumpers off the dribble. Without a reliable jump shot, his gifts as a playmaker would be muted in the half court.
Well, so much for all that worrying. Haliburton is breaking down defenders and draining step-back 3s like in the clip above. This season, 100 players have attempted at least 25 3-pointers after dribbling at least twice; Haliburton has attempted 67 such shots, and ranks 16th in 3-point percentage. This is nasty stuff for a rookie, and it serves as a good example that even draft prospects labeled as “safe” can tap into a higher upside. The Kings could have a star on their hands.
23. San Antonio Spurs | PR: 13 ↓
The Spurs should have blown it up.
The Spurs are 24-23 and fighting for dear life for the 8-seed after losing seven of their past nine games. They also have the second-hardest remaining schedule in the league. With no hopes of winning a first-round series, it’s time to let go, focus on player development, and hope for lottery luck with a class headlined by multiple potential stars.
Except the Spurs didn’t make any moves to bolster their playoff odds, nor did they trade away veterans. Saying so long to LaMarcus Aldridge was step one for the Spurs. That shouldn’t have been it. With veterans DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills, and Rudy Gay all set to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason, San Antonio should’ve moved them and fed more minutes to the kids. Instead, Gregg Popovich is still giving minutes to older players, which means young guys like Keldon Johnson often end up riding the bench in critical moments like he did for the final eight minutes in a loss to the Pacers last week.
24. Washington Wizards | PR: 22 ↓
Rui Hachimura is breaking out.
The Wizards haven’t won quite as much as fans would’ve hoped after Russell Westbrook joined forces with Bradley Beal, but at least Hachimura is showing some major flashes of long-term potential.
Most recently, the former ninth pick had back-to-back games with 26 and 30 points, often finishing inside off passes from Westbrook and occasionally creating for himself. Hachimura is still raw but he’s made subtle improvements as a finisher and has shot 3s slightly better (33.7 percent compared to 28.7 percent as a rookie). This is good news, and so is the fact that he has a better feel for making the right pass at the right time. Add in that he’s routinely defended the opponent’s best scorer and done a fine job, and there’s plenty of reason for optimism about his future.
Whether it’s enough to keep Beal in Washington long term is a different story. The Wizards are still bad—currently three games back of a play-in spot. And now Hachimura is out for an unknown amount of time with a shoulder issue. It’s unfortunate he’s missing out on developmental chances and his absence will hurt Washington’s odds of winning games. Then again, higher lottery odds might not be so bad.
25. Minnesota Timberwolves | PR: 28 ↑
Karl-Anthony Towns is playing slightly differently since Chris Finch was hired as head coach in February. Towns is getting more touches in the elbow areas, running more dribble handoffs, and dishing out highlight passes on a regular basis. Before the All-Star break, Towns brought the ball up the floor only 0.8 times per game; since then, he has more than tripled that number, to 2.5 times per game, according to Second Spectrum.
This is still a minuscule amount compared to primary facilitators (his teammate Ricky Rubio logs 35.9 per game, as an example) but it’s an upward trend worth monitoring considering his potency as a creator and Finch’s past history of empowering bigs, like Jokic and DeMarcus Cousins, to be facilitators. Timberwolves players more often look for Towns after makes, or he just brings the ball up himself after rebounds and turnovers.
The play above is a good example of KAT’s potential running the show. As a 39.5 percent 3-point shooter for his career, the mere threat of a pull-up causes his defender, Christian Wood, to contest him. But Towns is also a monster down low, and his 34-pound weight advantage causes Houston to show help, opening a window for KAT to throw an above-the-head pass for a bucket. A full offseason will be required for Finch to overhaul the system, and the Timberwolves also need to make plenty of changes to the roster. Every decision needs to be about maximizing KAT’s talents.
26. Detroit Pistons | PR: 27 ↑
Maybe Jerami Grant isn’t a go-to scorer.
Grant got off to a blistering start with the Pistons, averaging 23.8 points on 38.7 percent from 3 and 57.9 percent true shooting through his first 28 games. He was posting these numbers while also defending the opponent’s best player on a near-nightly basis. In his 28th game, he had a 43-point explosion in a loss to the Bulls, but ever since then his numbers have fallen off a cliff. Since, Grant is averaging just 20.3 points on only 29.2 percent from 3 and 51.7 percent true shooting.
Over the full season, Grant is one of 42 players averaging over 20 points, but he’s 40th in scoring efficiency and 36th in assists. The more we see, the more it’s clear he’s miscast as the top offensive option due to his limitations as a shooter and shot creator.
Grant’s certainly shown with Detroit that he can do more than he was ever asked to do in Denver, but it also speaks to the importance of finding players who can carry a heavier load. Killian Hayes needs his scoring to catch up to his passing ability, and the Pistons need to nail their 2021 first-round draft pick. Maybe then, Grant will fall into his ideal role.
27. Orlando Magic | PR: 25 ↓
Chuma Okeke handoffs are my thing.
Steve Clifford is doing a nice job of leaning into Okeke’s versatile offensive talents. Okeke often sprints through dribble handoffs to receive the ball as a potent shooter (38.3 percent from 3), and sometimes he’ll attack the basket. His handling ability also gets utilized as an open-floor playmaker:
Okeke also plays hard and defends multiple positions. He even made Harden have to work to generate space. He hustles. He plays a smart brand of basketball. And he’s only 22. With Okeke, the Magic have a player with a game built for winning.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers | PR: 29 ↑
Isaac Okoro gets the Jimmy Buckets seal of approval.
Jimmy Butler did a nice job of summing up the Okoro experience after the Heat beat the Cavaliers this weekend: “I was talking to UD [Udonis Haslem] at the end of the game and we agreed the kid’s gonna be really good. He plays within the game. He takes all the right shots, gets stops, he rebounds, he’s always passing the ball to the open guy. I really like his game, I do. He plays incredibly hard, he definitely does. He’s going to be in this league for a long time and he’s going to make a lot of money too.”
Rookies don’t often deserve this type of praise. Okoro has typically defended the opponent’s best scorer, including Butler for Miami. He understands his game and rarely ever steps outside of himself. The only long-term concern is whether he’ll become a reliable shooter. He’s at 29.5 percent from 3 and 68.3 percent from the line on the season. If that number improves, as Butler said, “the sky is the limit.”
29. Houston Rockets | PR: 30 ↓
Sterling Brown looks like a keeper.
Outside of Christian Wood’s production, Jae’Sean Tate having an All-Rookie-caliber season, and some flashes from Kevin Porter Jr., there’s not much to feel good about this season if you’re a Rockets fan.
One subtle positive trend is the play of Brown, who’s been a solid individual defender for Houston while shooting a career-high 41 percent from 3 (up from 34.5 percent in his first three seasons, all with the Bucks).
Players like Brown make sense on any roster, so Houston should think strongly about keeping him when he hits unrestricted free agency this offseason. But at 6-foot-5 and only 26 years old, any playoff team in need of a hard-nosed defensive wing who can hit 3s should be interested.
30. Oklahoma City Thunder | PR: 24 ↓
Read Tank Diaries.
Every Friday, my friend and Thunder fan Tyler Parker posts a blog on The Ringer called Tank Diaries. (You can read them all here.) I highly recommend it. They always make me laugh hard. Last week, Tyler wrote about how this Thunder squad, which should be tanking and is clearly not trying to win games after agreeing to sit Al Horford for the rest of the season, keeps managing to rack up wins.
As Tyler wrote, the Thunder are full of “meddling kids” who play with spirit. I’ve written about them in this space a bunch this season. I am a believer in Aleksej Pokusevski. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should have been an All-Star replacement. (Sorry, Mike Conley.) I would consider naming my first-born son Luguentz Kenrich O’Connor because of how inspiring their defensive effort is. The Thunder have good players. They’re just not a good team, and OKC fans shouldn’t worry too much about them winning many games.
Since the trade deadline, the Thunder are 1-4 and they’re being outscored by 23 points per 100 possessions. This team is due to lose way more. They might be last in my Power Rankings, but they’re first in my heart. If the basketball gods are kind, the Thunder will be rewarded on lottery night.